OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A group pushing for the end of sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses is one step closer to having its state question placed on an Oklahoma ballot.
In December, Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform announced the launch of the ‘Yes on 805’ campaign and a 90-day signature collection period for State Question 805.
Organizers say State Question 805 is a criminal justice reform measure that would end the use of sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses, and it would allow inmates who have already received an extreme sentence to petition the court for relief.
Sentence enhancements often add additional prison time for repeat offenders, often times well beyond what is considered the ‘maximum’ sentence for a crime.
“Our current system isn’t working,” said Sonya Pyles, with Tulsa Lawyers for Children. She added that studies show that sentence enhancements do not actually make the public safer.
“We can do so much better in creating a better criminal justice system. What we have done and what we continue to do is create a broken state,” she said.
Organizers say that compared to the national average, the sentences for people in Oklahoma are 79% longer for drug crimes and 70% longer for property crimes.
In the past, Governor Kevin Stitt has said that he opposes the proposed state question.
“Trying to put this into our state’s constitution, it peels back enhancements for DUIs, human trafficking, domestic violence, some of the things I don’t think we need to put into our constitution,” Stitt said.
Since then, domestic violence has become a violent offense, meaning it does not qualify for relief under State Question 805.
The organizers say sentence enhancements rarely add much time to DUI sentences. Instead, sentence enhancements are most often used for property and drug crimes.
Trent England, with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, says that sentence enhancements are most often applied to non-violent drug offenses in Sooner State.
“This is not something that is given to the worst of the worst…. this is given to the average offender,” England said.
England says it wastes tax dollars, especially since sentence enhancements usually affect older adults, who often have medical needs that must be paid for by taxpayers.
“These enhancements can go to life in prison,” said Sarah Edwards, president of Yes on 805.
For several months, the campaign worked to collect 177,958 signatures in order to put the measure on the 2020 ballot.
Their efforts were cut short when they were forced to stop collecting signatures due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Although they didn’t have the full 90-days to collect signatures, organizers say they still collected more than 260,000 signatures, well over the 177,958 that were needed to qualify for the ballot.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, organizers have been unable to turn in the signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Earlier this month, the campaign filed a writ of mandamus asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to require the Secretary of State’s office to accept the signatures and place the question on a 2020 ballot.
Last month, the court ruled that the Secretary of State’s office must accept the signatures within 10 business days.
Also, state leaders will be required to expedite the counting process to ensure that the state question can be put on a 2020 ballot if the needed signatures are verified.
On Monday, the group was able to submit the signatures for verification at the Secretary of State’s office.
Edwards says she cleaned 53 boxes containing the signatures with Clorox wipes before turning them into the office.
The Secretary of State’s office is expected to begin counting signatures on Wednesday, but there is no timeline for how long the count will take.
Once the signatures are verified, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter will then have the ability to review and rewrite the ballot title. Once that is done, there will be an opportunity for organizers to challenge any rewrite that occurs.
At that point, the Oklahoma Supreme Court would decide which version to accept, or to write a new version itself. Then, it moves to the governor to be scheduled for a ballot election.
Organizers say the process must be complete by August 24 in order for State Question 805 to make the November 2020 ballot.